“They’re going to die on that hill.”
That’s how SB Nation reporter Steven Godfrey described the way Jeremy Pruitt and his staff are approaching the Florida game this year.
In the July 10 episode of the podcast he does with colleague Bill Connelly, Godfrey got off on a brief tangent about how the new Volunteers coaches view the early part of their season. While UT wants to beat the Gators every year, here is how Godfrey described the unique importance this season (listen here):
“From what I’ve been able to learn about Jeremy Pruitt in a short amount of time, they’re going to die on that hill.
“They are going to treat September 22nd like it’s the end of the season. Because if Jeremy Pruitt can beat Florida in his first season, the equity will stockpile. He will have patience and reverence that he doesn’t deserve, and he probably won’t be able to hold onto, but he will build something there in the immediate first year, right at the beginning in the outset that Dooley couldn’t, that Jones couldn’t. It’s going to change the complexion of that program.
“It’s not going to be real, it’s going to be an illusion, but that’s what they need right now. I’m not saying they’re going to beat Florida. I’m just saying they’re going to go all-in in a way in which you’ve never seen before.”
“A win is a win” is a lie that people in and around sports tell each other. Rivalry games matter more. Florida has fallen on hard times of late, maintaining a 9-1 lead on Tennessee in the last decade but falling to 6-4 against Georgia and 3-7 against Florida State.
As for the Vols, a 3-7 record in the last ten games against UGA is the best that they’ve done against any of their three most hated opponents. They get the flip side of that mark against the Gators, and they’ve yet to beat the Crimson Tide since Nick Saban arrived in 2007.
And this year? They’re not going to beat Alabama, and they’re not going to beat Georgia. Strategically, Tennessee is going to do something roughly the same as those two programs but do it with far less talent. If they can keep it close for a half against either of those teams, they’ll be doing well.
Florida is a different story. The Vols and Gators have a similar amount of total team talent as measured by the 247 Sports Composite. The teams played to a draw for the first 59:59 of last year’s game, with the decisive catch coming right as the clock ticked to all zeroes.
UF’s run of success against UT in the last decade might be the most infuriating to Vols fans too. Florida has been fairly down over much of that time, not entirely unlike (though not to the same degree as) Tennessee.
Not only have the Volunteers mostly come up empty, the last three losses were excruciating ways to go down with rookie quarterbacks beating them. They blew a 9-0 fourth quarter lead against true freshman Treon Harris in 2014, lost track of Antonio Callaway on a reception from redshirt freshman Will Grier in 2015, and fell by the arm of redshirt freshman Feleipe Franks in 2017.
Again, the program is 4-26 in the last ten years against its biggest rivals. Florida is the one chance Pruitt has to pick up a win and generate any kind of goodwill in what otherwise looks like a rough first year. Going over the schedule really hammers that reality home.
Tennessee will probably lose its opening game to Grier and West Virginia. The Mountaineers are a legit Big 12 contender this year and will have more offensive firepower than the Vols can keep up with. After that comes a pair of tune-up games against FCS East Tennessee State and UTEP. Then comes the showdown with Florida.
After the Gators visit Knoxville, Tennessee has three consecutive games against preseason consensus top ten teams: at Georgia, at Auburn, and home against Alabama. After losing those three, they go to South Carolina to face a coach they’ve never defeated in Will Muschamp. Finally beating him might mean something to someone, but Tennessee doesn’t care about the Gamecocks much, and this should be a year when Carolina is peaking.
It could easily be four straight losses in that stretch. Factor in a season-opening loss to WVU, that’s five. Lose to Florida, and they’re on the edge of bowl eligibility before November even begins. With the possible exception of Missouri — it’s hard to gauge how much anyone in the SEC cares about Mizzou football yet — the home stretch consists of teams that hold only downside as teams UT believes it should always beat and abhors losing to (a cupcake and then Kentucky and Vandy).
If Tennessee is 2-6 going into the final month, the malaise around the program will continue. There will be wide shots of the November 3rd game against Charlotte showing vast areas of empty seats in Neyland. There will be no momentum to speak of for Pruitt to use to close his recruiting pitches. Some contingent of the fan base will turn on him — at least, among the ones who have even given him a chance at all after the tumultuous hiring fiasco that went on last winter.
No matter how you slice it, the Florida game is the most important one on the Tennessee schedule. It’s the only chance Pruitt has to get a win that Vols fans truly care about.
They’re going to die on that hill. The Gators had better be ready to do the same.